Trespassing and Appraisers, Part Two

Published for Coates' Canons on August 08, 2023.

We had a lively discussion with experts from the School and across the appraisal world during our recent webinar focusing on tax appraisers’ entry onto private property.  (If you missed the webinar, it will shortly be available for on-demand viewing here.)

For a primer on this issue, you can read this earlier post. And our criminal law expert colleague Joseph L. Hyde provides details on the law of trespass in North Carolina in this post.

Here’s the bottom line: unlike many other states, North Carolina law does not create clear and explicit authority for a tax appraiser to enter private property.  As a result, an appraiser could be at risk of a criminal trespassing charge or a civil trespass lawsuit if they were to enter private property over the objection of the owner.  That objection could be made in the form of “no trespassing” signage or could be communicated directly from the owner or their agents to the appraiser or the county.

There are of course many good reasons for appraisers to conduct site visits, primary among them a desire to make their tax appraisals as accurate as possible.  But the fact that site visits are important to the appraisal process does not, unfortunately, automatically grant appraisers a legal right to enter private property.

Given this uncertain legal landscape, here is our best advice to minimize legal risks for tax appraisers making site visits:

  1. For property on which there are no “no trespassing” signs conspicuously posted or for which the owner/occupancy has not instructed the appraiser to stay off of the property,

Appraiser MAY:

Knock on door.

Walk around the structure to take measurements, etc.

Appraiser SHOULD NOT:

Enter the structure without explicit permission from owner/occupant. If the construction of a new structure is completed to the point where there are walls, windows, and doors installed, the appraiser should limit their site visit to the outside of the structure.

Open a closed gate or hop a fence/wall to access the property.

Look into a residence through the windows.

  1. For property on which there are “no trespassing” signs conspicuously posted or for which the owner/occupant has instructed the appraiser to stay off of the property,

Appraiser MAY

Knock on door to ask permission to walk around the property.  But note that some homeowners who have posted “no trespassing” signs may not take kindly to strangers knocking on their door.  The risk of unpleasant (and potentially violent) confrontations may counsel against this approach.

Appraiser SHOULD NOT:

Walk around the structure or otherwise enter the property beyond the front walkway.

  1. Does a permit box with pre-printed trespass warnings create a legal risk for appraisers who enter the property?

Possibly.  But appraisers can minimize this risk by clearly identifying themselves and the purpose of their visit to the workers on the site. If the workers object to the appraisers’ presence, the appraisers should leave. If the workers do not object to the appraisers’ presence, the risk of a subsequent trespass prosecution is extremely low.

  1. Does a “no soliciting” sign have the same legal significance as a “no trespassing” sign?

No.  Appraisers may proceed as in #1 above.

  1. If there are “no trespassing” signs posted at the (non-gated) entrance of a subdivision, does that sign apply to all properties in that subdivision?

Possibly. The law is not clear on this issue.  To be safe, appraisers may want to assume this to be true, and only access residential property after obtaining permission from individual homeowners.

  1. If there is a gate at the entrance to a subdivision, may the tax office enter the subdivision using a gate code obtained from a delivery driver or other party who is a not an owner, resident, or gate attendant of that subdivision?

No.  An appraiser should enter a gated development only if the gate attendant or a resident grants them access.

      7.   If the appraiser sees evidence of possible criminal activity, the appraiser should leave the property and report the issue to the police or sheriff department. Of course, if the appraiser believes themselves or another person is in danger the appraiser should call 911 immediately.  As mentioned above, due to constitutional and statutory privacy concerns, appraisers should not peek into windows of residential property.

  1.  Drones cannot be used to take aerial photography of private property without the property owner’s   permission. GS 15A-300.1

       9.  Taxpayers retain the right to appeal their tax appraisals even if they refuse to allow county tax appraisers to enter their property. It may be more difficult for the taxpayer to carry their burden of proving that the county’s appraisal is incorrect without allowing the county access to the property. But it is not impossible; taxpayers could rebut the county’s appraisal by providing video or photographs of the interior of their property or by providing valuation reports from private appraisers.

Tax officials from across the state who participated in our webinar discussion offered some helpful tips to avoid unpleasant interactions and legal disputes with property owners. They included:

-have appraisers wear county name tags and brightly colored vests to better identify themselves and wear safety goggles and helmets when visiting sites under construction;

-send appraisers on property visits in pairs;

-visit properties only during weekday, daylight hours;

– send notices in the mail to homeowners informing them of upcoming property visits in their neighborhoods;

-put up road signs announcing the property visits when appraisers are visiting a neighborhood; and,

-require appraisers to wear body cameras (but some officials were concerned that recording visits may raise tensions with some taxpayers).

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Topics - Local and State Government